The Themes and Evolution of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Fairytale
The tale of “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the best-loved and most persistent fairy tales in modern culture. Its universal appeal is due to its endearing message of ‘true love’ and the idea that ‘beauty is found within’. However the concept of the animal bridegroom has been used in children’s literature for centuries and, much like the modern interpretation of the tale itself the idiom ‘looks can be deceiving’ holds true when it comes to tales like “The Pig King” and “The Frog King”.
“The Frog King” written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1812) is the tale of a young and naive princess who encounters a frog while playing in the garden (Ashliman, 2005). The princess makes a deal with the frog, promising that she will let him live with her but then leaves the frog admitting she never had any intention of fulfilling her promise. Later the frog returns and the girl’s father scolds her and instructs her: “When you make a promise, you must keep it” (Tatar, 1999, 49). The girl does as she is told until the frog tries to enter her bed, disgusted, she throws him against the wall and he is transformed into a prince with “beautiful, beaming eyes” and they fall in love (Tatar, 1999, 50).
Alternatively, Giovanni Francesco Straparola’s “The Pig King” features a more obliging bride who is willing to accept her deformed husband. The tale begins with a queen who is desperate for a son and due to an enchantment gives birth to a boy with the body of a pig. The king and queen raise the pig who one day demands that his parents find him a wife as he has fallen for a beautiful but poor maiden from the city. The maiden is unwilling to marry the pig and is coerced by her mother into accepting the offer but is so disgusted by her husband she decides to kill him, however, the pig discovers her plot and kills her first. The pig then demands to be married to the maiden’s younger sister, and the second marriage ends the same as the first. Finally the pig is married to the youngest sister who humbly accepts the pig as her husband. Later the pig sheds his skin and becomes a beautiful young man and the two live happily ever after (Tatar, 1999, 42-47).
Finally, Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont’s telling of “The Beauty and the Beast” (1757) requires the least introduction as it is one of the worlds best known fairy tales. The story follows a young beautiful girl who sacrifices herself to save her father from being devoured by an aristocratic beast. Slowly the girl begins to grow fond of the beast and eventually is able to see past his hideousness and agrees to marry him. The Beast then transforms into a beautiful prince and Beauty is rewarded for her virtue while her cruel sisters are punished. (Tatar, 1999, 32-42)
While these stories appear vastly different and contain varying messages they are all categorized under the subset of the animal bridegroom fairy tale and all touch on similar themes (Heiner, 2007). However, it is the way in which each tale approaches these themes that alter the overall meaning of the story. For instance each tale contains a different variation of an arranged marriage, the consequences and motivations of such are examined in varying depths and result in varied outcomes. Moreover, the recurring motif of the animal bridegroom and the fair maiden highlight the roles and expectations of gender and class at the time each tale was written, some of the tales are empowering while others are merely reflections of the repressive society of the age. Finally the theme of sex and attraction is present and, in fact and in each instance, drives the plot and delivers the meaning of the tales.
SEXUAL MATURATION, GENDER AND ATTRACTION
Attraction is a pivotal theme in each telling of this tale and is exaggerated by the men in each story literally being portrayed as animals. Notably while the women in these tales are infallibly beautiful, the men are judged in other areas and are only attractive when their real virtue is uncovered indicating that a man’s true value is in his character. Beauty from “Beauty and the Beast” and the maiden from “The Pig King” share many idealized feminine traits such as obedience and kindness. However, the protagonist of “The Frog Prince” is indicative of a different feminine ideal, she is beautiful and innocent like her counterparts but less submissive and more self-interested and proves herself capable of finding her own happiness through action as opposed to passivity.
The women in each tale are at first repulsed by the ‘beastly’ men who symbolise the primal and sexual aspects of human nature, the women must see past the men’s exterior to experience and accept the joy of a sexual relationship and reach sexual maturity themselves. In each tale the form that the man takes affects the meaning of the tale. The most profound of these is present in “The Frog King”, the phallic nature of the frog and the princess’ refusal to allow him in her bed has led literary critics to believe that it’s meaning is sexually symbolic. The frog transforming to a prince is symbolic of the transformation of a virgin’s perception of sex from something disgusting to something she accepts (Heuscher, 1974). The symbolism of the golden ball that the princess plays with further supports this interpretation, as the golden ball is symbolic of the princess’ virginity and naivety, and foreshadows her violent rejection of him later in the story (Talairach-Vielmas, 2012, 288). The meaning of her rejection symbolizes the fear and disgust that women feel at their first sexual encounter, and warns that men shouldn’t force women to share their beds until they’re willing to accept them. It is only after the frog transforms into a prince that the couple find wedded bliss.
This meaning is markedly different to the meaning of “The Pig King” as the heroine of the story is the woman who accepts her partners bestial nature and her unwilling sisters are victims of the beast. The sisters’ violent reaction to their disgusting bridegroom and unwillingness to consummate their marriage is punished whereas the youngest sister’s obliging nature and acceptance of the pig results in a happy marriage. It is only after the maiden gives herself to the pig that he transforms into a prince. Therefore the meaning that the text suggests is that women need to be willing to endure their partners sexual advances in order to find happiness.
Finally, “Beauty and the Beast” is the most tender tale when it comes to sexuality. While the beast is symbolically the most physically aggressive suitor of these tales, in reality he is the most patient of the animal bridegrooms and least willing to force himself on his partner. The physical form of the beast is symbolic of the ‘violence of male sexuality’ that women must learn to accept in order to live harmoniously with their partners (Talairach-Vielmas, 2012, 275). Furthermore, the appearance of the beast is the strongest sexual metaphor and his transformation represents Beauty’s own sexual maturation, instead of seeing a monster in her partner she sees something beautiful (Talairach-Vielmas, 2012, 272). The meaning the text suggests that marital happiness is achieved through patience on the part of the man and a willingness to wait for their partner to accept their sexual nature, the beast understands how he appears to Beauty and rather than force himself on her he is chivalrous and waits for her to accept him instead. This suggests that women are happiest in a tender marriage and that the strongest unions are those in which the woman chooses to take the man.
LOVE, MARRIAGE AND CLASS
Each tale involves an arranged marriage that results in the happiness of the participants. In each tale the arranged marriage doesn’t succeed until the characters accept each other, reinforcing the idea that marriage is dependent on love and that without love a marriage will not last (Tatar, 1999, 28). In this respect class is also an important driving force in these stories, the class of the participants affects the dynamic of their relationships and the overall meaning the tale presents.
The reasons for marriage in “The Pig King” affect the outcome of the marriage each time, the older sisters married the pig for money and status rather than love which, despite being common for the time, the marriages failed as a result. The maiden who married the pig sincerely was ultimately the successful bride suggesting that money and status are poor reasons to marry. The class of the maiden was also important in determining her marital success, the three maidens were marrying up a class and needed to act accordingly, the youngest maiden who acted humbly and who graciously accepted her blessing at being chosen survived her arranged marriage.
The opposite is the case in “The Frog King” which presents a princess born from aristocracy who acts immorally without retribution. Where the sisters in “The Pig King” acted violently to a member of a higher class and were punished, the princess in “The Frog King” is rewarded for her violent actions towards a ‘lower’ creature. The meaning here seems to suggest that it is essential to act according to one’s class and that marriage alone cannot alter the class in which someone is born. It is only after the frog becomes a ‘prince’ and compliments the princess’ social position that the marriage begins to operate effectively and they become equals.
Class is ever-present in “Beauty and the Beast” and it is Beauty’s acceptance of her class position that ensures her happiness. While her sisters act with snobbery despite their tenuous class position and refuse to marry anyone below them, Beauty acts virtuously and is the epitome of a fine gentlewoman of the age. In fact in each story the sisters are presented as the antithesis of the main character, while their poorly behaved sisters are punished the girls are cherished and rewarded for their sincerity (Carter, 1991, 128). Beauty is rewarded because of her class awareness and adaptability in agreeing to an arranged marriage when she is poor for the good of her family. The willingness of the women in these stories to adhere to their parents wishes and agree to an arranged marriage mirrors the social practises of the age but the meaning of each text seems to suggest that marriages between classes will not function without mutual love and the conformity of the lower class participant (Tatar, 1999, 27).
HONESTY, PATIENCE AND COMPROMISE
Outside of these factors each tale has it’s own unique overarching meaning which is transformed by each retelling, despite many similarities between the texts the nuances in each tale set it apart from the pack of animal bridegroom tales. The message or meaning of each text relates to the factors that result in a happy marriage and the happiness of the characters.
“The Frog King”’s meaning is related to honesty and the importance of keeping promises and the happiness that comes from commitment. This is reflected in the attitudes of the princess’ father who encourages honesty and in the prince’s servant Heinrich who finds his happiness from his commitment to his master. The couple’s dishonesty keeps them from having a successful relationship, the princess made a false promise and was unhappy fulfilling it while Frog’s false form only causes the princess discomfort. It is only after the couple return to their honest selves that they are able to accept each other.
While being seemingly similar the meaning of “The Pig King” is different to this, even though it would seem as though it was the dishonesty of the sisters that caused their deaths it was, in fact, their inability to compromise that caused their ends. It is only after the maiden compromises and marries the grotesque pig that the pig is able to compromise and become a man to meet her halfway. The tale suggests that a dual compromise is the best path to mutual happiness in matrimony.
Finally, the meaning of “Beauty and the Beast” and perhaps what ensures it has the most enduring message is that of patience and tenderness. By waiting for Beauty’s feelings to change the beast ensured that she loved him of her own volition rather than forcing her. The tender way in which the characters interact creates a lasting bond based on mutual respect rather than passion or necessity. However, the meaning that these tales are unified by is ‘the transformative power of love’, and this is what ultimately sets the sub genre of the animal bridegroom apart from other fairy tales (Tatar, 1999, 27).
Ashliman, D. L. (2005, November 30). The Frog King or Iron Heinrich by the Brothers Grimm a comparison of the versions of 1812 and 1857. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/frogking.html
Carter, A. (1991). About the Stories,” in Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales. Boston, United States of America: Otter Books.
Danielson, J. (2002, April). Annotations. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from http://blaine.org/jules/annotations.html
Heiner, H. A. (2007, June 25). History of Beauty and the Beast. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/beautybeast/history.html
Heuscher, J. (1974). A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales: Their Origin, Meaning, and Usefulness (2nd ed.). Springfield, United States of America: Charles C. Thomas
Talairach-Vielmas, L. (2012). Beautiful Maidens, Hideous Suitors: Victorian Fairy Tales and the Process of Civilization. Marvels & Tales, 24(2), 272-296.
Tatar, M. (1999). The Classic Fairy Tales (1st ed.). New York, United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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